Where does any artist go after a debut album that has firmly cemented itself as a transcendent classic? Releasing a sophomore album has always been one of the hardest tasks lingering over any musician’s career. Look at it this way, most artists have had their whole life to prepare for their first album which is often soaked in 20 plus years of anecdotes, emotions and observations and that hunger is audible in every syllable. It is that raw hunger that makes the debut album almost impossible to replicate.
Unfortunately Kendrick Lamar is not immune to this burden. The artist behind the indubitable classic, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, has just released his much anticipated sophomore album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, but therein lies the problem… “much anticipated!” Anticipation is a cruel creature that opportunistically lurks on the perimeter of success waiting to pounce upon those that fall short of its charms. But of course, I can’t say Kendrick has fallen short, firstly because I would be lynched and secondly because there’s a segment of my mind that is somehow aware that he actually hasn’t. At least that’s the case in this part of my brain where logic momentarily prevails, but as I sit here listening with the devil of expectation perched upon my right shoulder, my ears prick up awaiting the next ‘Poetic Justice’… The next ‘Sing About Me’… The next Rigamortis! I wait and wait, but much to my chagrin the intangible sound that is so desperately sought after by every ounce of my being just doesn’t manifest. As such I’m stuck in a state of cognitive dissonance. This should be the best thing since sliced bread or at the very least since his debut album, but it just doesn’t compute.
I then have to pause and consider why this is the case. If ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ had been a steaming pile of repulsive substances then maybe I’d consider ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ an absolute gem. Maybe I’m the problem here? My palette is esoteric and perhaps the narrow band of my taste is thoroughly illustrated by the fact that I’ve been spinning the soul laden ‘You Ain’t Gotta Lie’ on repeat as I’ve been spewing my thoughts on this page. This happened to be the first track that jumped out at me on my initial listen.
By all means it’s a solid album and when has having a solid album ever been a bad thing? Perhaps had this album been released by any other artist I would have been thrilled by all it has to offer, but Kendrick Lamar is hip hop’s appointed saviour, yet somehow that transcendent spark is missing.
With that said I can’t fault the project lyrically. Kendrick Lamar continues to demonstrate why he is this generation’s best story teller, delivering enthralling, metaphor laden narratives in his signature style, as well as sprinkling spoken word poems throughout the album at opportune moments. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ encompasses the usual dynamic array of subject matters we’ve come to expect of Kendrick, however the primary focus this time around seems to be centred around introspection, growth and unity as a race (can anyone say J Cole)?
Musically, Kendrick reminds us he’s still Los Angeles through and through from the onset with the straight west coast, g funk bass lines of ‘Wesley’s Theory’ and ‘King Kunta’. The west coast vibes continue throughout thanks to heavy contribution from producers Terrace Martin and Thundercat. I was surprised to see Pharrell’s name in the credits, although ‘Alright’ isn’t the most spectacular track his name is attached to by any means.
As I’ve progressed with this review I’ve struggled to resolve the dissonance this album has created. Maybe it’s a grower. Yes, it’s a grower! I’ll give it a week or so and wait for the perils of anticipation to dissipate and perhaps then I will hear the album for the gold it surely is, free from the cloud of the sophomore curse.